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'Letters' is a haunting look at Iwo Jima through Japanese soldiers' eyes

There's a moment in "Letters From Iwo Jima" where the profundity of what Clint Eastwood is doing blindsides you with a wallop. The Japanese general Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe ) emerges from a cave during the fifth day of the epic World War II battle and spies, a mile or so away, a handful of ant-like figures raising a US flag on Mount Suribachi. It's glimpsed on the right side of the screen for a wobbly second and then it's gone: One of the iconic images of the 20th century, viewed through the wrong end of history's telescope.

That famous photo was the focus of Eastwood's other Iwo Jima movie, "Flags of Our Fathers" -- the center from which the film's many concerns radiated out. Reviewing the honorable, overloaded "Flags" last fall, I wrote: "As gifted as this director is, this isn't the sort of thing he does best." "Letters From Iwo Jima," by contrast, is very much the sort of thing Clint Eastwood does best.

Eloquent, bloody, and daringly simple, the movie examines notions of wartime glory as closely as "Flags of Our Fathers" dissected heroism. The 20,000 troops sent to defend the desolate island -- the first piece of Japanese soil threatened by the Allies -- understand they have no chance of winning. The Imperial navy and air force have been destroyed at the battle of Saipan, and there are no reinforcements coming. The approaching U S armada is overwhelming in size and firepower. Advises one officer bleakly, "In my opinion, general, the best thing to do would be sink the island to the bottom of the sea."

Eastwood is much more interested in how men react to certain death than in replicating the order of battle, though, and "Letters" plays like "The Alamo" as remade by Jean Renoir , the visionary humanist of "Grand Illusion ." We're introduced to characters on every level of the defending forces, from the squabbling, hidebound top brass to the exhausted soldiers, and we come to understand that each man -- as do all men in war -- falls into one of two camps: the deluded ideologues and the stressed pragmatists.

Characters like Lieutenant Ito (Shido Nakamura ), Captain Tanida (Takumi Bando ), and Colonel Adachi (Toshi Toda ) belong to the former, beating their men in the name of Imperial honor and advocating tactics more cruelly macho than sensible. The potential for, even the attraction to, wartime atrocity sneaks in: Ito shows his men a photo of a U S Army medic and tells them to shoot soldiers wearing similar uniforms. Suicide, that noble samurai ideal, is revealed as pathetically useless when administered, in one of the movie's most upsetting scenes, by a hand grenade held against the belly.

This, says "Letters," is why Japan lost the war, taking so many and so much down with it. Other characters, by contrast, recognize their leaders' death-wish folly and struggle to outlive it. Watanabe's General Kuribayashi is an enlightened officer who has traveled in and admires America. He mourns that it has come to this while exhorting his men to fight to the bitter end. The upper-class Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara ), a former Olympic equestrian who arrives on the island complete with his horse, is revealed to be compassionate and kind, sharing memories of the States with a wounded G I (Lucas Elliott ).

Not all the Japanese look so kindly on their captives, of course. Slowly, though, a central figure emerges from the chaos: Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya ), a simple foot soldier -- a baker back home -- who has a grunt's cynicism toward martial endeavor. Let the officer s proclaim what they will, it's the Saigos of the world who dig the trenches and take the bullets. Over the course of "Letters," this character becomes witness, friend, conscience, catalyst, commemorator, and -- he hopes -- survivor. In the pitch darkness of this movie, his innate goodness becomes a lifeline.

As the Japanese were barely seen in "Flags of Our Fathers," Americans are hardly glimpsed here, the uncomfortable implication being that we go to war against aspects of ourselves. (This may be especially true of aggressors: When one Imperial soldier describes Americans as weak-willed and ruled by their emotions, you can hear the panic in his voice.) At times, "Letters From Iwo Jima" convulses with gore; at others, the movie seems to sense the earth turning placidly beneath its characters' feet. The territory covered is similar to Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line," but with a lot less poetic mucking about.

Written by Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis and based on the real General Kuribayashi's posthumously published correspondence, "Letters" represents filmmaking so assured it can take your breath away. Eastwood has pruned all affectation from his directing style, leaving a movie that feels straight and true. Tom Stern's cinematography is leached of colors except for the red sun on the flag and the orange blooms of bombardments: action and consequence. Only the score by Michael Stevens and Eastwood's son Kyle, pretty and discreet as it is, feels a touch obvious.

Whether a film about a long-demonized wartime enemy, told in a foreign language with English subtitles, can reach a mass American audience remains to be seen. "Letters" is so good, though, and its maker working at such a level of mastery and respect, that one hopes for the best. Eastwood views his doomed losers with a humane and pitiless sigh; he has made a movie full of ghosts, and it haunts.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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